What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?

Big honking SPOILER warning if you haven’t seen the latest Superman movie, Man of Steel (MoS).

I really wanted to like, even love, this movie. I thought the performances were top-notch. I also liked a few of the story elements. Instead of exploring Superman’s weaknesses, whether physical (kryptonite) or emotional (people he cares about coming to harm), this movie chose to explore how humanity would receive a being of god-like power. However, the filmmakers quickly abandon this interesting question for generic blockbuster fare. I also liked the idea of the codex and possibly repopulating the Kryptonian race. There was potential for a New Krypton story in this film or a sequel. However, that potential was also squandered. Unfortunately, at every opportunity the filmmakers opted to tell the lesser story. In a way, this post is superfluous because Mark Waid has so eloquently captured my own reaction to this movie. You might want to save time and just read what he said. Nevertheless, I feel the need to comment.

Long-time Superman fans will remember Joe Kelly’s story in Action Comics #775 (March 2001) called ‘What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?’ The issue put Superman in conflict with a group of ‘anti-heroes’ called ‘The Elite’ (based on Warren Ellis’ and Mark Millar’s The Authority) who routinely killed their enemies and were praised publicly for it. Superman shows by example that there’s always another way. That’s the essence of the story and, in my opinion, the character.

I’m aware that it’s problematic to take one story from Superman’s 75 year history and say that it sets a non-negotiable precedent. That’s not what I’m saying. I know that Superman has been portrayed variously throughout the years, and not always as a paragon of virtue. There’s plenty of super dickery to go around. But I think that the message of Action #775 is important. Despite modern audience’s cynicism, and our willingness to embrace anti-heroes who kill their enemies, Superman should set a higher standard. Unfortunately, MoS, in an effort to make Superman ‘cool’ and ‘relevant’, has compromised the soul of the character. The movie has already made a fortune at the box office, so the filmmakers’ efforts to make Superman resonate with modern audiences have clearly paid off. But at what cost? I watched Superman summarily execute Zod, while other audience members cheered, and I wondered if I were the one who’s from another planet.

I’m willing to forgive several departures from ‘the canon.’ Lois knowing Superman’s identity from day one? Sure. Jor-El being killed by Zod instead of the explosion of Krypton? Okay. Krypton’s topography, architecture, fashion, and technology looking different than in previous incarnations? I’m game. Not seeing Clark wear his signature glasses until the end of the film (by then making it largely pointless)? If you must. But I’m afraid I draw the line at a Superman who resorts to killing.

Those who defend the filmmakers’ controversial decision claim that Superman had no choice. Zod gave him no alternative but to use lethal force. Leaving aside the fact that he clearly did have alternatives even within the context of the story as written, Superman doesn’t let his enemies dictate the terms. Like Capt. Kirk, Superman doesn’t believe in the no-win scenario. But let’s assume that I’m wrong. Let’s say there are circumstances in which Superman would be justified in taking a life. These certainly weren’t those circumstances and this film does not earn its ending. It’s not only the climax, but the events leading up to it that are problematic.

The last half, or at least third, of the movie consists of relentless destruction and collateral damage that makes a Roland Emmerich film look like an exercise in restraint. As Waid says, if we had seen Superman demonstrate any concern to save the hundreds of thousands of people who died in the devastation, or any attempt to take the fight away from populated areas, perhaps then the move might have been justified. If we had seen that he could not both save people and defeat Zod and that his self-sacrifice was costing him the fight; if he were bloodied, bruised and unable to resolve the conflict any other way, i.e. Doomsday, then maybe. And that’s still a big maybe. But we don’t see evidence of this. Again, this is exacerbated by the fact that, given the scale of the destruction we’re shown, hundreds of thousands of people have died. The filmmakers cannot show us that many lives meaninglessly extinguished and then expect the lives of a few more to be meaningful and therefore justify Superman’s action. It just doesn’t make dramatic sense.

Regardless, he could have depowered Zod using the Kryptonian ship. I’m not clear why it was destroyed on impact especially since any Kryptonian alloy should be nigh indestructible on earth. There are other plot holes here too. Why would the Kryptonians want to make earth like Krypton where they don’t have powers? Why does the black hole disappear instead of, you know, destroying the whole planet? Why is it daylight in the north and south hemispheres simultaneously? Normally, I would forgive these issues in a blockbuster film, but it speaks to the lazy writing. Goyer seems so intent on ‘forcing’ Superman to make the fatal choice, that he doesn’t care how implausible the route to that choice becomes. But nothing in the logic of his own script forces that conclusion at all. It’s clearly just there for shock value.

Fans complained that Superman didn’t punch anything in his last theatrical outing. Well, Goyer, Snyder and company have certainly addressed that complaint. They’ve given the people what they want. Unfortunately, it comes at the cost of the character. I’m also surprised by otherwise sober fans defending this film’s conclusion. Are they so desperate for this movie to succeed as a franchise platform that they’ll overlook a Superman who kills? I understand that being a Superman fan makes you a bit of an outsider. He isn’t dark and edgy like Batman (who doesn’t kill either, by the way) and sometimes Superman looks quaint and square by comparison. As a Superman fan, I’ve often wished he would be embraced as cool by mainstream audiences. But not like this. If this is what the character must become to be popular with contemporary audiences, maybe it’s better that he — and by extension his fans — remain unpopular.

Fantasy and Theodicy

I have a confession to make. I’ve never been a big fantasy fan. I’ve always preferred science fiction. The reasons for this are complicated, but I suspect it has to do with my philosophical disposition. I’ve always agreed with Douglas Adams that the wonder of understanding is better than the wonder of not knowing. In my opinion, science fiction exemplifies the wonder of understanding. For most science fiction, modernity is a given. We don’t need to go before modernity, to retreat into mythology, in order to capture wonder.

Having said that, I get the appeal of fantasy. It often presents us with a world in which virtue is rewarded and evil punished. At least that’s been the case traditionally. Helen Cruz, at The Prosblogion, has brought my attention to an article by Adam Brereton on George R.R. Martin’s phenomenally successful Game of Thrones. He argues that GOT fails as fantasy because it doesn’t follow ‘elfin ethics.’ In conventional fantasy, oath-breakers are punished, oath-keepers are rewarded. Those who run afoul of metaphysical laws face the consequences. Virtue triumphs over vice. However, in contrast to Tolkein, Martin’s characters break these conventions. Presumably, this is why GOT doesn’t work for Brereton. Well, granted it may not work as a morality tale. Brerenton seems to have  primarily Christian fantasy in mind, although he talks about Lovecraft as an example of a ‘profane’ or atheistic fantasy writer.

Although I disagree with Brereton’s requirements for fantasy  — for reasons I’ll get to in a moment — he does have a point. Fantasy, especially in the Tolkein/C.S. Lewis vein, has deep ties to theodicy. For those unfamiliar with this term, theodicy is basically an attempt to get God off the hook for evil and suffering. It is difficult for us to imagine how the seemingly pointless evil and suffering in the world could be part of an overarching cosmic plan. Fantasy of the Tolkein/Lewis variety is very often an attempt to expand our imaginations; to envision what philosophers would call a ‘possible world’ in which suffering is redeemed in some way. It’s this aspect of fantasy that Cruz takes up in her piece. Another way of framing Brereton’s complaint is: should the characters in GOT, given the violence and seemingly gratuitous evil of their world, believe in God? Brereton’s implicit answer is ‘no’ and that is his fundamental objection.

I’m not going to get into the theodicy debate specifically here. (Full disclosure: I don’t think any theodicy succeeds.) I’ll simply point out, as many of Brereton’s readers did in the comments, that there are no moral requirements on the fantasy genre. If ‘atheistic’ fantasy isn’t to Brereton’s taste, that’s fine. But there are many examples of amoral or morally ambiguous fantasy. My favorite example is Robert E. Howard’s work, especially Conan. Conan lives by a code of sorts, but his moral conduct is often questionable at best. He triumphs, often against magical forces, by sheer strength and force of will, rather than any attention to virtue. He lives in a cruel, violent world and takes what he wants most often by force and occasionally by cunning. Yet only a very ad hoc definition of ‘fantasy’ would exclude the sword and sorcery world of Conan the Barbarian from the genre due to its amoral portrayal of the universe.  Likewise Martin’s GOT.

As far as I’m concerned, there are no moral constraints on the fantasy genre (again, speaking as very nominal fan). Some works of fantasy support theodical interpretations of the kind Brereton favors; others do not. Which works of fantasy one prefers (or whether one prefers science fiction) will likely have to do with one’s philosophical and religious disposition.

My Favorite Superman Stories

This month marks the 75th anniversary of Action Comics #1, the first appearance of Superman. The Last Son of Krypton has remained in continuous publication ever since, not to mention appearing on radio, television, and the movies. Speaking of movies, Superman also returns to the big screen this summer in Man of Steel. Since I’ve always been a Superman fan, I wanted to take the opportunity to share some of my favorite Superman stories from the comics. This isn’t a ‘best of’ or ‘greatest stories ever told’ list. It’s a purely subjective look at some of my favorites, so if your favorite story isn’t on my list, feel free to add it in the comments.

1. Must There Be A Superman? (Superman #247, Jan 1972) Superman is a god-like figure, a secular messiah, and for most of his history, writers never questioned whether or not Superman’s presence on Earth was good for humanity. However, Elliot S! Maggin did just that in ‘Must There Be A Superman?’ In the story, The Guardians of the Universe (and founders of the Green Lantern Corps) confront Superman with the possibility that he is holding back humanity’s progress. They argue that humans have become too reliant on Superman and have failed to solve their own problems. Superman takes this idea to heart (at least for the duration of the issue) and experiments with a more hands-off approach. The details of the adventure are less important to me than the question it raises. If a god-like being did intervene in our world in seemingly beneficial ways, would that be an unqualified good? Nietzsche, who originally coined the term ‘superman’ (Übermensch), certainly didn’t think so.

2. For the Man Who Has Everything (Superman Annual #11, 1985) Alan Moore penned this classic story in which Batman, Robin, and Wonder Woman visit the Fortress of Solitude for the Man of Steel’s birthday (or ‘firstday’, as they say on Krypton). However, when they arrive, they find him under the spell of a parasitic hallucinogenic plant, called the Black Mercy, that feeds its victims fantasies in exchange for feeding on their bio-aura. In Superman’s delusional state, he experiences his life on Krypton as it would have been if the planet had never been destroyed. As Batman and Robin try to free him from the Black Mercy, and Wonder Woman fights the villainous Mongul, fractures begin to appear in Superman’s fantasy and his idyllic dream becomes a nightmare as he resists the Black Mercy’s power. Philosophically speaking, the Black Mercy is a good stand-in for Nozick’s Experience Machine. Superman would rather live in reality than a pleasant fantasy. Nozick agrees and argues that in such a scenario, we should prefer reality to an artificial, albeit pleasurable, existence. Incidentally, ‘For the Man Who Has Everything’ was adapted for the animated series Justice League Unlimited. It’s an excellent episode in an excellent series!

3. Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? (Action Comics #423 and Superman #583, Sept 1986) Another Alan Moore story, this is a brilliant send-off to the Silver Age. Although it’s an ‘imaginary story’ (non-canonical) it’s become the more or less official end of Superman’s Silver Age career. The story is told from the perspective of Lois Lane (now Lois Elliot)  ten years after Superman has disappeared, presumed dead. This story takes a darker look at many of the admittedly silly aspects of Superman’s Silver Age continuity. The result is an emotional and ultimately tragic resolution for many favorite Superman characters. This entry in the Superman mythology is also noteworthy for asking ‘Must there be a Superman?’ As one of the characters comments in retrospect: “Superman? He was overrated, and too wrapped up in himself. He thought the world couldn’t get along without him.” In this way, Moore tacitly broaches the Superman-as-Savior motif that informed much of the character’s history to that point.

4. Red Son (Elseworlds, 2003) What would have happened if Superman’s rocket had landed in the Soviet Union instead of the American heartland? That’s the question that Mark Millar asks in Superman: Red Son. I like parallel universe stories and this is a great one. Superman has always stood for Truth, Justice, and the American Way, so it’s very interesting to see him standing for a completely different ideology. Nevertheless, Red Son is morally complex. It doesn’t degenerate into patriotic jingoism. Superman always believes he’s doing the right thing. Even Lex Luthor, the American scientist trying to assassinate Superman, is not a black and white hero or villain. I’m getting into spoiler territory here, but the way Luthor ‘defeats’ Superman with a piece of his home planet (no, not kryptonite) is brilliant. It’s a great read and there’s plenty of fodder for philosophical reflection.

5. All-Star Superman (All-Star Superman, #1 — 12 Nov 2005 — Oct 2008) I should begin with a confession: I’m not a big Grant Morrison fan. Within continuity, his work has a tendency to become a muddled mess, but when his imagination is given free reign, the result is arguably one of the best Superman stories in the character’s long history. All-Star is in the same spirit as Moore’s ‘Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow.’ It proposes a hypothetical conclusion to the Superman saga, one that not only brilliantly situates Superman within his own mythology, but within mythology more generally. It is a Joseph Campbell-esque tale of the trajectory of a hero. The story is full of imagination and manages to pay homage to the character’s past while simultaneously bringing a fresh perspective (something that comic books and pop culture in general doesn’t do very often). It also manages to be both a good introduction to the character for new readers and a rewarding experience for long-time fans.

Honorable Mention:

Superman for All Seasons

Kingdom Come

Peace on Earth

Well, there you have it. I have many more favorites, of course, but those are at the top of the list. Did I get it right? What’s your favorite Superman story?

Robocop and Transhumanism

robocopI’ve been thinking about transhumanism lately. In a previous post, I talked about the promise of secular immortality that transhumanism offers. But I also mentioned the potential for private ownership of persons that transhumanism poses. A movie that dramatizes this potential is the sci-fi action classic Robocop. The over-the-top violence and tongue-in-cheek cynicism of Robocop often preclude it from being taken seriously. But there are actually several philosophically relevant themes at play in the film. In addition to being a brilliant satire of 80’s corporate America, its core story is the loss and recovery of Murphy’s personhood.

Before we get to that theme, however, let’s talk about the film’s seemingly overt critique of capitalism. As mentioned, it is a satire of the corporate ‘greed is good’ culture of 80’s America. We find out that Detroit’s police force has been privatized; it’s run by a mega-corporation, Omni Consumer Products (OCP). More importantly, however, OCP seems to think that it owns its employees, even after physical death, as we see later.  Robocop raises good questions about how an anarchic-capitalist society could be organized without falling into the dystopian scenario it envisions. But the film’s critique of capitalism is perhaps more subtle than even its creators intended.

One of the strengths of Robocop is that it holds a mirror up to American society — especially the Reagan era — that ought to make us uncomfortable. Although the screenplay was written by Americans, the addition of a European director, Paul Verhoeven, gives the film a unique ‘outsider’ perspective. I suspect the satire of American commercialism is stronger on screen than it was on the page due to Verhoeven’s direction. Nevertheless, to call the film an unambiguous critique of capitalism is a bit too simplistic. It’s more correctly a critique of the corporate and state collusion that makes privatization possible. The irony of American capitalism is its reliance on state mechanisms. The lawmakers are often corporate cronies who ensure that the laws allow them to exercise ownership over an increasingly wide purview. In turn, the power of the state has to be increased to protect these ‘property’ rights. It’s a vicious cycle that leads to the loss of individual liberty.

I should say parenthetically that I’m a left-wing libertarian. I endorse the Left’s critique of corporatism; unlike the Left, however, I think that critique applies equally to the state. Robocop does a good job of critiquing monopoly capitalism, which is, of course, government and corporate collusion rather than a free market. Left-wing libertarians often express this distinction with the slogan ‘markets not capitalism’; alternatively, they talk about freed markets. Nevertheless, even the staunchest supporter of free markets will admit that some things should not be owned; persons, for example. Whether or not Murphy is a person or a product to be owned by OCP is the main philosophical focus of Robocop.

The OCP executives clearly think that Robocop is a product. Importantly, this attitude even predates Murphy’s transformation into a cyborg. In one scene, Johnson, an OCP executive, remarks that since Murphy is legally dead, they can do anything they want with him. After his transformation they refer to him as ‘product’ many times. When Robocop attempts to arrest Dick Jones in contravention of Directive 4, “Product Violation” flashes across his screen. By the way, Directive 4 is a very literal way of illustrating the point that corporations manipulate the law to their advantage. Clearly, OCP considers Robocop to be product. They resurrect him, but at the cost of his personhood. Or so they believe.

That Murphy is still a person is established when Robocop dreams of his former life. Here the film implicitly endorses the memory criterion of personal identity over time. Although this criterion is problematic in some ways, it’s generally accepted by transhumanists. In fact, one of their primary goals is to preserve our memories beyond our physical demise. In preserving the memories, they believe the are preserving the person. So, for the sake of argument, let’s grant the memory theory of identity. By this criterion, Robocop is a person; indeed Robocop and Murphy are the identical person since there is a continuity of consciousness. Interestingly, Verhoeven insisted that the dream sequence come before the “Murphy, it’s you” scene with Lewis instead of after, as originally written. This detail shows that he comes to this awareness himself, rather than being told by someone else. It also communicates the core message of the movie: nobody can fully own another human being. Despite OCP’s efforts, they do not succeed in taking Murphy’s soul.

Speaking of souls, Robocop is shot through with religious imagery. In the featurette on my DVD version, Verhoeven acknowledges several allusions to Christianity. Most obviously, Murphy dies and is resurrected. Later in the film, there’s a scene in which he appears to be walking on water. I would add that there are also several themes that could be interpreted along religious lines. As mentioned, OCP believes that it owns people, even after physical death. Traditionally, this is a prerogative enjoyed only by God. This Omni-corporation has indeed taken on this divine prerogative. Thus, the film raises the question: what happens when God is replaced by something else, in this case the corporation? Although I’m not religious, I’m wary of secularism’s attempt to replace God with something else, whether it’s the corporation or the state. The irony of modern atheism is that, having cast off the divine, it quickly seeks to fill that void with another powerful entity of its own creation. Robocop, with its grim depiction of modern society’s decay and the debunking of its so-called technocratic saviors, also touches upon this theme.

Although many consider it a juvenile movie, I find it thought-provoking. Apparently, I’m not the only one. If you want to hear the heart of Robocop expressed in song, watch this: